During the Apartheid period, women were prominent in almost all areas of protest. Of all the campaigns in that women were involved, the most significant was the anti-pass campaign in 1956 which saw thousands of women of all races gathered in Pretoria to present a petition against the carrying of passes by women to the then Prime Minister, J.G Strijdom. The apartheid regime's influx control measures and pass laws were what women feared the most and reacted strongly.
However, since the release of political prisoners and unbanning of political organisations and liberation movements, as well as the dispensation of democracy, the struggle of women has changed. During the early 1990s, women’s organisations in South Africa achieved an exceptional level of organisational strength. In September 1991, the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) brought together women from different spheres of communities as well as political parties, women’s organisations, advocacy nongovernmental organisations, grassroots organisations and trade union movements to discuss the possibility of a national women’s structure that would link women across racial and ideological divisions. The discussions resulted in the formation of the Women’s National Coalition (WNC) in April 1992, a broad front of 70 organisations and eight regional coalitions, and a Steering Committee was elected with Dr. Frene Ginwala and Anne Letsepeas conveners.
The coalition brought together organisational affiliates and regional alliances of women's organisations. The WNC embraced women from across the political, economic, racial, cultural and religious spectrum. The main idea for the formation of the WNC was to ensure women’s demands and hopes of their role and status for a new nation formed part of South Africa’s new Constitution. It was aimed at ensuring that women participated in the making of the constitution and in the formulation of the Women's Charter for Effective Equality that was launched in 1994. The Women’s Charter for Effective Equality was a key document that guided the writing of the new Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. The formation of the WNC saw the increased involvement of women in the constitution making process where women played an essential role in drafting the new constitution and provided a strategic and organisational vehicle for women activists to articulate their rights within society.
The Charter, which was officially recognised and endorsed by the National Parliament, was adopted in August 1994. The Charter addressed a broad range of concerns, including equality, legal rights, economic issues, education, health, politics, and violence against women. The Charter was the basis of the demands of the WNC in the constitutional negotiations, creating a noticeable unified statement for women and about women. It formed part of the documentation which was taken into consideration to determine the final constitution of South Africa.
Since 1994, South Africa has made significant progress in putting in place legislations and policy framework for advancing equality and empowerment for women, children and people with disabilities. On 15 December 1995, South African Parliament adopted without reservation the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and its Optional Protocol, thus committing itself to a wide range of obligations under international law. On 10 December 1996, International Human Rights day, the late former State President, Nelson Mandela signed into law a final constitution for South Africa which allowed the establishment of the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) in April 1997. The CGE is an independent statutory body established in terms of Section 187 of the Constitution of South Africa Act 108 of 1996 to promote and protect gender equality.
South Africa also signed other key international and regional instruments, such as the Beijing Platform for Action; the Millennium Declaration; the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa; the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa; and the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, and the passing of domestic laws that promote gender equality and protect against discrimination and victimization based on gender. Legislation in place includes the Employment Equity Act; the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act; the Domestic Violence Act; the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act; the Protection from Harassment Act; the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act; the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act; the Maintenance Act; and the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, as well as the Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill 50 of 2013.
Beside the challenges still faced, women have made considerable gains enshrined in the new Constitution of the Republic of South Africa which seeks to protect many important rights for women. The constitution provides women with the right to equality; freedom and security of the person; reproduction, security and control over their own body. The constitution also provides measures to improve the quality of life of all women such as the right to education; property; clean environment; adequate housing; health care services; sufficient food and water; and social security for those in need.
After South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, women formed 27.75% of members of the National Assembly. This number increased to 44% in 2009. By mid 2014, out of 400 seats in the National Assembly, women’s representation stood at 40.8% in the Lower House and 35.2% in the Upper House, ranking South Africa third in the world in terms of women representation in Parliament. In 2009, the number of women in the South African government was higher at 58.2% as compared to males. The South African Parliament recently passed the Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, which strongly called for equal participation of women in the economy and for equal representation of women in positions of decision-making, (50/50) in both private and public sectors.